USS ESSEX, AT SEA --
Most associate service members with combat and training to fight our nation’s wars. However, as the Asia-Pacific region’s force-in-readiness, the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit is always prepared to support any operation including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
The 31st MEU completed its participation in Operation Tomodachi on April 7, after nearly three weeks of conducting relief operations with the Japan Maritime and Ground Self-Defense Forces in support of Operation Tomodachi.
Operation Tomodachi, which means ‘friendship’ in Japanese, included U.S. forces adding assistance to Japanese efforts to respond to the massive devastation which occurred after a 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck Japan, March 11.
The 31st MEU was split into three separate parts on the day of the disaster. The largest ship, USS Essex (LHD 2), with most of the Marines and Sailors of the 31st MEU aboard, had just completed an exercise in Cambodia and had arrived in Malaysia for a port visit. When 31st MEU leadership received news of the tsunami, they initiated an immediate recall of all personnel who were away from the ship on liberty. The ship quickly took on some supplies, and in less than 24 hours was underway to Japan where it would meet up with USS Germantown (LSD 42) and USS Harpers Ferry (LSD 49).
Germantown and Harpers Ferry were both in Indonesia with elements of the 31st MEU embarked, and Marines and Sailors aboard the USS Harpers Ferry were scheduled to participate in a large humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercise starting March 12. Both ships were immediately alerted upon news of the disaster in Japan and headed north for the stricken country.
The Essex Amphibious Ready Group and the 31st MEU first arrived off the coast of Akita, Japan, March 17 and began flying coastal surveillance flights. Then, on March 22, the ARG repositioned off the east coast of Japan, near Hachinohe, and the 31st MEU immediately began delivering relief supplies ashore via helicopters of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 262 (Reinforced). Supplies delivered included water, blankets, and other health and comfort items. HMM-262 (Rein) conducted a total of 15 survey missions and 204 supply delivery missions with nearly 300 hours of flight time.
“We train for this, we’re good at this, and in fact, in the last 3 years, the MEU has conducted five different humanitarian assistance missions,” said Col. Andrew MacMannis, 31st MEU commanding officer. “Most of the Marines aboard have executed a mission or have trained and been evaluated on it.”
On March 27, the MEU and Essex ARG’s priority became support to the isolated island of Oshima. The units began by transporting relief supplies, which included moving commercial electric utility vehicles, a fuel truck, a water re-supply vehicle and civilian workers from the Tohoku Power Company by U.S. Navy landing craft to restore partial power to the cut-off island.
During the Oshima operation, two pallets of clothes, blankets, food and toys donated by Marines and Sailors were flown to the JMSDF helicopter destroyer JS Hyuga (DDH 181) by Marine helicopters, where they were distributed to displaced residents of the island who were temporarily embarked aboard the ship.
Working alongside the JGSDF, the 31st MEU delivered 15,000 pounds of supplies to the island and cleared tons of debris from harbors, roads and beachs. Marines also created temporary shower facilities allowing residents to bathe. For some it was the first time they had been able to take a shower since the tsunami struck.
“When I first heard about the mission it was a little bit of a surreal feeling because the MEU trains for missions like this,” said Capt. Bradley Gibson, CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter pilot with HMM-262. “Although it is a devastating time for the people of Japan, it is also exciting to be able to execute the mission and use the training. There is an immediate sense of pride when you know you’re going to be part of something that is going to help so many people.”
In total, the 31st MEU and the Essex ARG moved more than 160,000 pounds of relief supplies to those affected by the disaster.
“It’s great to have this sort of opportunity,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Emilio Casenave, a corpsman with Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, 31st MEU. “I’ve never seen anything like this. These people are in a horrible situation, but it’s a great feeling knowing something we did actually impact someone’s life and helped make it better.”
JMSDF Lt. Hiroaki Tanaka, who served as a liaison officer between Japanese and U.S. forces in the area, expressed appreciation on behalf of the people of Japan. “Thank you,” said Tanaka. “We are extremely thankful for your help and cooperation. I will never forget everything you have done for us.”
As it currently stands, the 31st MEU does not have any other relief missions planned. The MEU remains available for tasking, but does not expect the Japanese government will require more assistance.
The Japanese government has a large relief operation underway, which the 31st MEU supported over the past few weeks. Now it appears 31st MEU support may no longer be needed, which shows that the Japanese government and the Japanese Ground Self Defense Force are able to stand on their own to recover from the disaster. The Marines have helped their friends in their time of need, and stand ready to support further if called upon.
The 31st MEU is the nation’s only continually forward-deployed MEU, and remains ready to respond to a wide range of crisis and contingency operations.